10/28/2014 02:51 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014


The Mayday PAC is a political action committee that "aims to elect a Congress committed to fundamental reform in the way political campaigns are funded by 2016." 1. The founders of the PAC, Lawrence Lessig and Mark McKinnon, view their efforts in the 2014 election as a pilot project to determine whether their strategy can succeed. By October 22 of this year, the PAC had spent $5.4 million in support of eleven candidates. More than half of these funds were spent on two races. The PAC spent $1.5 million backing Jim Rubins, a Republican who was defeated in New Hampshire's primary election. It has spent almost the same amount in opposing Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who in the general election is running against Paul Colin Clements. 2.

Complete data on how the Mayday PAC supports or opposes candidates are not available. But the Center for Responsive Politics has gathered information on how the PAC spent its money during the second and third weeks of October. What is clear is that Mayday, like most other PACs, concentrates on television and digital advertising. During those two weeks it spent $2.9 million, of which 90.7 percent was allocated to "television and digital ad buys." By contrast, "grassroots and communication services" was allocated $28,500, slightly less than 1.0 percent of overall spending. 3.

The PAC does not indicate the standard by which its 2014 pilot will be evaluated. But its strategy document reports that if it is successful, "the PAC will organize a much larger intervention in 2016, with the objective of electing a majority of Congress that has either cosponsored or pledged to support fundamental reform of the way elections are funded." 4. If however it is judged that the 2014 effort was not successful, the PAC is likely to close its shop. Philip Bump in his Washington Post blog cites Lessig as saying he has "no interest" in an "incremental 20-year process." 5.

It is impossible not to be skeptical about a major political reform effort that has such a short time horizon and does not prioritize grassroots organizing. Efforts to achieve deep democratic reforms always depend on the power of numbers in struggles with privilege. The Mayday PAC does not do that. On the contrary it seeks big donors to match funds contributed by small donors to finance its media campaigns. However, Lessig has already conceded that he has not been able to raise as much money from big donors as he had hoped. 6.

The Mayday PAC thereby has chosen a decidedly unfavorable political terrain. Even if Lessig was able to raise all the money he sought, there is a very strong likelihood that in a tight race, Mayday ads would be swamped in a flood of expenditures, generated from the Right.

Lessig has drawn an analogy between the civil rights movement and the need to reform the financing of political races. But his impatience and the low priority that the Mayday Pac assigns to community organizing sharply contrasts with that movement's experience. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were the products of protracted struggles over many decades, in which mobilizing large numbers was the key to overcoming that region's entrenched system of segregation.

Paradoxically, at least some on the Right, opponents of campaign finance reform, have learned that even their own deep pockets are not sufficient to maintain their dominance. Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the PAC supported by Charles and David Koch, have turned to grassroots organizing. According to Matea Gold in The Washington Post, the AFP is undertaking "a long-term effort to undercut the left's long-standing dominance in grassroots organizing." According to Gold, the AFP anticipates spending more than half of the $125 million that it has available for the 2014 election cycle to expand its ground organization. The Koch brothers aim "to keep activists engaged through stage legislative fights in 2015 and then harness more firepower in the 2016 elections." 7. While Lessig's strategy abandons the vehicle of past reform successes, the beneficiaries of the current system are planning to take it over.

There is no doubting the fact that the American people are deeply distrustful of the country's political system and the politicians who inhabit it. They do not believe that the political process is responsive to their interests. They think politicians cater to the wealthy, and the academic literature agrees. People could be won over to a reform agenda. But at the moment, their skepticism leads them more to disengagement than to political activism.

Political disengagement, however, can be overcome. But creating the mass movement that is needed will only be accomplished by long-term grassroots work in neighborhoods, communities, towns, and cities. It will take a long time to convince a skeptical population. Television ads alone will not do the job of convincing large numbers of people that curbing the political power of wealth is possible.

There are no short-cuts.

1. MAYDAY US, "The Plan to Get Our Democracy Back,"
2. Center for Responsive Politics, "Mayday Pac: Independent Expenditures, Communication Costs and Coordinated Expenses as of October 22, 2014,
3. Ibid
4. See footnote #1
5. Philip Bump, "Inside the Bizarro Super PAC that Hates Super PACs,"
6. Laurence Lessig, "Calling it Closed on the Match,"
7. Matea Gold, "Americans for Prosperity Plows Millions into Building Conservative Ground Force,"